The editors of The Jewish Mystical Tradition respond to the JID review

Hopefully, last post on this topic. Help me think though my introduction. Any thoughts on my philology/spirituality distinction?

The response of the editors points out correctly that the volume is far from monolithic or representative of renewal. (There is also a response by Tepper to this response.)It faults Tepper with ignoring the articles on mizvot and viewing the book as antinomian. Tepper also mistakenly confuses the authors with almost everything in the US. It seems like Tepper should learn about the American scene, let him visit Aleph – Alliance for Jewish Renewal and then National Havurah Committee (NHC) and finally the independent minyanim. I think JTS would be surprised at Tepper’s crediting Green’s students with egalitarianism. Finally, Tepper should say hello to Michael Lerner to hear about the progressive end of things.

However neither side is getting the Hasidic issue. Are they Hasidic? Tepper claims that they are not Hasidic and Hasidic is not self-help. To this, the editors write that Hasidut is personal growth and that they are aware that they are changing the Hasidic text for modern sensibilities.

In my view of things, the recent usages of hasidut are not just a modernization but also an appropriation into a new context of spirituality, in which functionality is the criteria. That is not a fault –only the lack of historic awareness that precludes a real discussion of spirituality.

To use a recent definition of spirituality comparing it to magic, divination, or even psychological techniques that are outside of religion.

Spirituality belongs to a category of human phenomena that overlaps with, but is not identical to, religion. Like magic, luck, and divination, spirituality may be defined as attitudes and practices dedicated to transcending undesirable states of being without relying on formal religious institutions to get the job done. What sets spirituality out in this category of pragmatic procedures, at least in the modern world, is its characteristic concern for a self seeking to be free of encumbrances.

The editors claim that the Hasidic terms gadlut katnut, and hishtavut are about personal growth and transformation so they are not reading something foreign into the text. They are aware of later interpretation as taught in a history of ideas class, so this is another chain in the history of ideas. My point is that interpretive transformation is not the same as functional transformations. Tracing ideas of the Ari to Vital to Hai Rikki to Ashlag is history of ideas. Trying to understand why Americans like the Kabbalah Centre is already the study of contemporary religion and spirituality in its functional sense. In the latter case, one turns less to Gershom Scholem and Art Green and more to the sociologists Wuthnow and Ammerman. The ideas has been converted into a new category of spirituality.

The editors claim that their panentheism is that of Besht and Alter Rebbe, yet they seem not to see that that their panentheism is part of the world of Jay Michaelson’s panentheism. It is less about raising sparks and projecting metaphysics onto the world and more Gaia, Ramakrishna, or Buddhism non-duality.
Asking someone why he likes a Buddhist text in translation and out of its original monastic context – the answer that you get wont be the simple reading of the Buddhist text, it will be functional; it will answer why? not the question of what the text says? The problem here is the blurring the historical and spiritual candle at two ends.

As the Immanent Frame commented on the new series from Princeton University Press:

For many years, Religious Studies was defined as a hermeneutical discipline based upon great texts, but the typical disciplinary approach was to treat the texts as hermetic, self-contained wholes upon which the scholar expounds and expands. With this series, however, we are witnessing a new willingness on the part of scholars in Religious Studies to approach the dynamic relationship between theological treatises and their social environments, between texts and contexts, as it were.

Tepper claims it is not peshat and they answer that they are updating classic ideas. However, it does not matter if the peshat line is crossed since they are not updating as much as applying to create a functional spirituality like our contemporary paperback Buddhist. They are trained as professors to teach the textual philological activity but they are not trained in the social environment and usages they make of the text. And they are not self-aware they their interpretation is one of the dozens possible in the current spiritual marketplace.

When Hasidut becomes 12 step in Rabbi Abraham Twerski’s hands it also crosses the same line. Twerski is not destroying Judaism even when he directly quotes Romanticised and New Age Hasidism. The goal to understand Twerski is to compare him to other usages of the Hasidic texts. I have a lecture that I give sometimes where the same passage of Hasidut is used to justify 12 step, expressive writing therapy, song, solitary meditation and post-modern acceptance of the self. To compare these Hasidic texts is not to ask which is closer to the peshat, none of them are. The goal is to take out and compare them to the various studies of contemporary seekers, spirituality, new age, personal religion, and moral temperance.

Alban’s Institute (which creates spirituality materials for Houses of worship) works with four types spirituality and has a functional sense of know your congregation. Alben’s shows how to preach the same passage differently to different spirituality. Here we have a lack of self-awareness of the author’s spiritual path.

The dividing line may actually lie between Art Green and his students. Green still speaks of Otto and Eliade so his spirituality of sacred time is embedded in his scholarship. Those following Green have a two step process of giving half their essays to explaining the 18th century and then the second half of their essays in a specific modality of the dozens of contemporary spirituality options.

Thoughts on this intro? The more discussion now, the quicker I can move on from this topic.

The Jewish Mystical Tradition Past & Present: A Response to Aryeh Tepper
By: Lawrence Fine, Eitan Fishbane, and Or Rose

As the editors of Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life, we feel compelled to respond to Aryeh Tepper’s recent review of our anthology because of his gross mischaracterization of the volume and his unnuanced presentation of the Jewish mystical tradition past and present.

To begin with, Mr. Tepper describes the anthology as if it were the work of a homogenous group of contributors affiliated with the Jewish Renewal Movement. This is incorrect. While it might be convenient to lump all of these people into one group for the sake of attack, it does not accurately reflect who they actually are. In doing so, not only does Tepper misrepresent the identities of many contributors but he also fails to acknowledge that they articulate different views on important issues of exegesis, religious praxis, and theology. Of course, even those contributors affiliated with Jewish Renewal do not speak in monolithic terms.

The volume is designed to provide the English reader with a range of Hasidic and kabbalistic sources (many translated here for the first time), accompanied by commentaries that both elucidate the meaning of the primary texts in their own terms and explore the potential significance of these teachings for Jewish life today. We chose this structure because, like many classical Jewish books, it offers the reader the opportunity to engage in a dynamic conversation with multiple voices on the page—the original mystical commentator, the contemporary translator/interpreter, and the many other sources invoked by both writers.

One of Tepper’s criticisms of the book is that the contributors employ language from New Age culture about personal growth and transformation that is foreign to classical Jewish mystical discourse. The issue is much more complex and interesting than he states. The kabbalists, and especially the Hasidic masters, do speak at great length about the inner life of the devotee. Terms like gadlut (“greatness” of mind), hishtavut (“equanimity”), and shiflut (“lowliness” or humility) are all a part of the Hasidic lexicon. It was for this reason that Gershom Scholem once described Hasidism as the “psychologization of Kabbalah.”

Contemporary writers will naturally draw on language from other fields to help articulate the meaning of these older (and often multivalent) mystical terms in their original contexts and in the process of adapting these expressions for use today. Here the Hasidic masters are actually an interesting model for us, as they invested several inherited religious terms with new meanings. One need only compare the use of the term tzimtzum (“contraction” or self-limitation) in Lurianic Kabbalah to early Hasidism for a fascinating instance of this phenomenon. The contributors to our volume are all aware of the complicated nature of translation, interpretation, and adaptation, and have sought to address these issues in thoughtful and creative ways.

Related to this point is Tepper’s statement that our contributors too readily adopt a theological perspective of divine immanence in which “everyone’s life is understood to be already suffused with the ‘always-flowing force of light and energy.’” He then accuses them of making the individual “the measure of all things.” In response, we wish to say that if Tepper is unhappy with the description of divine light or energy coursing through all of life, he should take it up with the Ba‘al Shem Tov and countless Jewish mystics who preceded and followed him. Divine immanence (often spoken of in Hasidic texts within a panentheistic framework) is perhaps the most significant teaching of the spiritual founder of Hasidism. As several scholars have noted, this form of spiritual empowerment was one of the keys to the success of the Hasidic movement. It must also be said that this teaching of radical immanence does not lead the Hasidic masters or our contributors to a solipsistic celebration of the human “I,” and certainly not to a position of complacency and relativism in which there is no imperative to grow. It is for this reason that so many of the primary texts and commentaries in the volume deal with the importance of spiritual discernment and the cultivation of ethical values.

Tepper seems most exercised by the implications of this depersonalized theological language for the status of the mitzvot, and he argues that the contributors to our volume do not articulate substantive answers to this problem. As Tepper writes, “the real difficulty arises when you consider how an ‘always flowing force of light and energy’ can issue commandments.” He goes on to say that while past Jewish thinkers have addressed this issue in a variety of sophisticated ways, the contributors to Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life evade the issue of religious authority, settling for “piously vague” language. Once again Tepper chooses to make a sweeping claim, failing to acknowledge that the writers articulate different views of God (including variations of immanentism) as well as Jewish law and praxis. There are contributions that explore the concepts of revelation and prophecy, halakhah and antinomianism, and others on prayer, Shabbat, and intentionality in ritual observance.

It seems that Tepper has glossed over these contributions to suit his underlying agenda: to demonstrate that today’s post-denominational Jewish seeker will lap up “spiritual vitality” with a dabbler’s superficiality and indifference to the source, so long as it serves the aim of spiritual enrichment. He claims that our volume is a manifestation of this phenomenon. That Tepper equates this tendency with post-denominationalism is an absurd generalization that suggests his ignorance of the nuances of contemporary Jewish life. Furthermore, since when does denominational affiliation ensure spiritual depth and a serious and reflective engagement in Jewish life and practice? Need we also remind the reviewer that several of the contributors to this volume are actually leaders and prominent members of different denominations! We also strongly object to the notion that all those who search for spiritual vibrancy drawing on a range of different sources have no regard for the ways in which such ideas and practices accord with the foundational texts, concepts, and rituals of the tradition. This is a deeply problematic assertion about today’s Jewish seeker and one that ignores the fact that Jews have been adapting ideas and behaviors from different intellectual and religious sources for centuries.

Tepper chastises one of our contributors for hubristically celebrating the radical “egalitarian impulse” in the Jewish Renewal Movement. What this writer does celebrate is the willingness of pioneering figures like Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Arthur Green to weave together teachings from Kabbalah and Hasidism with other intellectual, ethical, and spiritual sources to live meaningful and responsible Jewish lives. Despite the reviewer’s claim, neither of these individuals nor any of the contributors to this volume call for a wholesale adoption of “progressive” American values; what they are all trying to do is fashion lives of holiness based on the insights of the Jewish mystical tradition in conversation with other Jewish and non-Jewish sources of wisdom—including important lessons from egalitarian movements like feminism and multiculturalism, and from other religious traditions.

Tepper describes this “impulse” as being “fundamentally at odds” with the “heart of Jewish tradition” without actually saying anything about why this is so or what constitutes Judaism’s core.

Finally, Tepper is very quick to describe the writings in the anthology as “shallow,” “cloying,” and the like. We strongly disagree with this characterization. Having reviewed every submission to the volume, we believe that the writers all deal in thoughtful and sensitive ways with the sources they have selected to interpret. The reviewer’s description of the collection as “spirituality lite” is gratuitous to say the least. To present the contributions of highly sophisticated and learned individuals such as Mimi Feigelson, Michael Fishbane, Shai Held, Melila Hellner-Eshed, Shaul Magid, and Daniel Matt (to name but a few of the contributors) in such a condescending and dismissive manner is to egregiously distort the contents of the volume. Further, such language does not help advance a productive conversation about issues that are important to us and to the reviewer

6 responses to “The editors of The Jewish Mystical Tradition respond to the JID review

  1. All I’d add to Alan’s find discussion of the philology/spirituality distinction is that recognizing the difference allows one to then ask under what conditions and by what kind of authority can one then cross that line? Or do we have to guard or even police that line to preserve some imaginary core of Jewish tradition which is forever in danger of dissolution, but which in fact seems always to reconstitute itself precisely on the line between learning and innovation?

    As Max Weber might have recognized, today that authority is charismatic, not traditional or bureaucratic. I think Aryeh would like to assert a monopoly for tradition, but I fear that the automatic and systematic tarring of anything relating to Renewal suggests that more bureaucratic models of institutional thought-control are at work over at JID and the Jewish Review of Books. (We’re talking about the multimillion dollar, corporate, neoconservative Tikvah Fund again, right?)

    Like jazz, you know charisma when you see or hear it. Maybe not so much when you read it. I for one might have 101 problems with the book under review or with Green’s Radical Judaism. But I’ve seen Green teach before a synagogue group, many of whose members might have twice as many criticisms about the book as I do. And he has them for at least the moment. Because he’s the real deal and because people respect quiet wisdom and devotional depth that come with many years of deep thought, and we actually learn something in the process despite or in our disagreements.

    I for one trust Green to “cross” that line between philology and spirituality. He’s earned that right and that trust. I’d say the same about Fine, Fishbane, Rose and many of the contributors to this volume. In contrast, I’m pretty sure I don’t trust attempts by Aryeh, Landes, JID, or the Jewish Review of Books to guard that line; the ideological line is so insistent all the time about everything. Because they cry “wolf” all the time, I’m not sure they are able to distinguish genuine from ersatz tradition and spirituality (or is it Chicken Little?).

    Perhaps a comment regarding graphics is in order. Maybe we should retire the back-slash in favor of a hyphen. A (-) would seem a more giving symbol than (/). It preserves the difference its user seeks to cross, while knowing that the difference remains different.

  2. Yehoshua Hershberg

    Please note that the author of this blog has posted the response of the the editors of The Jewish Mystical Tradition published here:
    However, he has not published Aryeh Tepper’s response to that – also published at the same URL.

    • From Tepper’s response:

      “One of the ultimate concerns of [the Jewish] tradition is to
      actualize the image of God latent in human beings—women and men, Jews
      and non-Jews alike. And one of the ways the tradition does this is by
      constantly putting before us the commanding heights of perfection by
      which we should strive to evaluate and order our own lives. If, in the
      light of those heights, I know that mine is a “low” life, at least I
      know where I stand—and also that, if I so will it, and if I put in the
      effort, I can rise upward.”

      This makes sense as a description of mussar. But is mussar really
      coterminus with tradition, or with the way non new-age Judaisms conduct

  3. I found your review and this post to be clear and to the point.

    My impression from reading what’s on the internet is that there are two groups involved in this new spiritualism. There are the Jewish Renewal people, reconstructionist in spirit, not worried about halacha, joyfully syncretistic and pitching to the unaffiliated marginal Jews, the intermarried and secular. Many of these potential congregants when asked their religion, in lieu of saying Jewish, describe themselves as “born Jewish, now spiritual but not religious.” Then there are more traditional Jewish thinkers centered around Conservadox who feel that the only way to light a fire in the space left of Centrist Orthodoxy up to Reform is with Chasidus.

    Their claim in both instances, forgetting for the moment the basis of their authority, is that they possess the techne, the tools to reignite the Jewish spirit. The test is in the doing, promissory notes and programmatic statements won’t do. If any version actually worked, who cares if they had the proper authority? In creating a large vibrant community they create their own authority. So far I see only two success stories…Reb Shlomo Carlebach who was no theologian, very traditional in his talk, but highly charismatic and passionate in his music. Nigunim that come from the heart can reach deep places in the Jewish neshama, and most everyone who opened themselves to his negina benefitted. The other is Reb Zalman, who after all is said and done did manage to clone his derech, along the way ordaining rabbis, creating new styles of worship…the whole nine yards. I don’t see many in my neck of the woods chalishing for his tuition, but as these things are measured he is a success. The big test is in the future… will neo chasidus revitalize the Conservative movement? Who will step forward and graduate from philologist to Conservative rebbe? All us kibitzers in the bleachers are anxiously awaiting the answer.

    • Neochasidus at JTS? Try neoconservatism:

      JTS ADVANCES REFLECTION ON CRUCIAL EXISTENTIAL ISSUES: God. Morality. War. Good. Evil. These are just some of the topics addressed by our new Tikvah Institute for Jewish Thought, directed by Dr. Alan Mittleman, professor of Jewish Philosophy at JTS. Needless to say, these are not minor conversations; they deal with the big issues of life. The Tikvah Institute organizes conferences, promotes events, and cooperates with existing Tikvah projects at Princeton University, NYU Law School, and the University of Toronto. In October, the institute began a series of free public lectures called Contemporary Jewish Philosophy: Three Lectures, and in March it will launch a series of rabbinic seminars, featuring speakers such as William Kristol of The Weekly Standard and Professor Moshe Halbertal of Hebrew University and New York University, that will focus on some of the broad moral themes mentioned above.

  4. Just three weeks ago I heard Idel talk about the problem of researching religion today (that is, researching contemporary religion) with yesterday’s (philology) tools. He called for some interdisciplinary work with sociology, as the field is in a constant flux and reading books is just not enough. As a phd student who loves to read and researches Jewish Renewal et al, this of course was quite depressing to hear.

    And thank you for your kind words in that other post.

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